Hamas declared a huge victory after each of the three Israeli offensives since 2008 that left behind many dead and enormous destruction in the Gaza Strip. So how can Hamas not declare victory when its 400 or so rockets (and one person killed by a rocket, who was a Palestinian worker) didn’t end in a fourth war?
The victory lap reflects the duality in Hamas’ view of itself and how it presents itself to the outside world: on the one hand a resistance group against a colonial occupier, on the other the Gaza Strip’s sovereign – one that expresses the wishes of Allah and the people (in the 2006 elections, but who’s counting?) and is marching toward the leadership of the entire Palestinian people.
As the resistance, Hamas takes pride in its true – or fake – victories. As the sovereign with roads to pave and government officials to pay salaries, it tried for a cease-fire.
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Here too, as with the suitcases filled with Qatari money, Hamas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met at a crossroads of mutual interests: guaranteeing that the organization keeps control of Gaza on condition that it’s only Gaza. In other words, on condition that the internal Palestinian split persists, meaning the continuation of overall Palestinian weakness.
The exposure of the Israeli unit that infiltrated Gaza to conduct some sort of operation (a routine infiltration, we are told) was indeed an achievement for the fighters of the Iz al-Din al-Qassam brigades, another example (like the rockets) of Hamas’ increasing military prowess. It’s not the prowess of a guerrilla group fighting in the jungle but an organization that sees itself as the head of a state that must defend its sovereignty and respond to any invasion.
The Israeli media made a huge story out of the Gaza youth who managed to reach the greenhouses of Netiv Ha’asara, reporting it as a terrible security failure. Why should Israelis expect Hamas to treat a hostile military infiltration as insignificant just because it’s a routine event of the kind rarely detected? Hamas, which even Netanyahu treats as the head of an almost-state, can’t regard routine invasions as Israel’s inalienable right, even if they’re something the army does daily and openly in Palestinian enclaves in the West Bank without a response.
An essential ingredient of Hamas’ effort to paving its way as the leadership of all Palestinians and perhaps to international recognition as such (whether as part of an artificially revived nonexistent PLO, or under a new umbrella) is declaring great military victories in the present. Yasser Arafat already knew how to turn the bloodiest of battles, successful or not, into groundbreaking victories for the Palestinian struggle for independence.
Last week, the rocket-attack fears of Israelis living near Gaza were portrayed as a victory, as was the military bus set on fire and the reports of Israeli economic losses. All are trophies or medals for Hamas. The group isn’t only competing with Israel but mainly with Fatah. Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation was the pinnacle, a platinum trophy.
A much more real prize was the admiration won by Hamas in the Palestinian diaspora and in the West Bank, where many people are hungering for achievements and proof that Israel isn’t omnipotent (in uncomplimentary comparison, to put it mildly, to the actions of the Palestinian Authority that earns more scorn from the public each day).
But if these World Cup trophies were filled with water from Gaza’s taps, they wouldn’t be fit to drink from. That’s the final proof of Israeli control over the Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank: At the end of the day, Israel is the first and last to decide how much water the Palestinians will have and how polluted it will be. That’s a much more painful, invasive and destructive long-term means of control than the ability to issue or not 5,000 Israeli work permits that would increase Gaza’s monthly income by thousands of percent.
Therefore, Netanyahu should be believed when he says Hamas begged for a cease-fire, even if the begging was heard through envoys. The Hamas leadership doesn’t survive on its image alone, as a hologram to inflate the chest of Palestinians living outside Gaza – it must also cope with reality.
It’s a reality in which no Gaza Palestinian (except perhaps those trained to be soldiers and those with access to a fully supplied bunker) can bear the thought of the nightmarish horror of a new Israeli offensive – all the dead and wounded who bleed to death under the rubble because the Israeli army doesn’t let rescue crews reach them.
In reality, a dwindling UNRWA will have an even harder time than in past Israeli offensives providing emergency services to people fleeing the bombing of their neighborhoods.
In reality, it’s no consolation to know that perhaps – and certainly much more slowly than in the past – international funding will be found to rebuild homes and infrastructure destroyed for a sixth or 10th time since 2000, and that international volunteers will show up again to counsel the children and other trauma victims.
No comparison to Israel’s army
Hamas’ half-hidden desire for a cease-fire is also proof of its governance and maturity as a leader. The calculation isn’t that of a guerrilla organization counting the dead on the other side and which anyway lacks the tools to contain the spread of Israeli settlements – and it doesn’t even try to do so. Hamas’ calculation is no longer that of an organization seeking to thwart the PA or embarrass the rival movement – Fatah – by pushing the youths of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades to compete over who can kill more Israelis. The considerations are of a civilian leadership living among its people and listening to them.
And even if the people are afraid to say in front of the cameras that they’re afraid and sick of total wars, the leaders know it. They also know that all the Iranian weapons they have and the partisan enthusiasm of the Iz al-Din al-Qassam brigades bear no comparison to the destructive power that a single Israeli operations room can exercise. And the leaders remember that there are the problems of water, sewage and electricity to be solved.
Despite Hamas’ declarations of its willingness to hold elections as soon as tomorrow, its leaders know very well that even if they won again they couldn’t govern for a moment in the West Bank. Israel would immediately arrest all Hamas’ elected officials, freeze the transfer of customs revenue and confiscate even more money from the banks. But it’s doubtful whether Hamas wants to govern there; this would show how it’s just as helpless as the PA vis-à-vis Israel’s deepening control over most of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and the expanding settlements.
Hamas can’t return to being a guerrilla organization after having built a capability exceeding that of a militia and establishing itself as a civilian government. Even if Israel would allow it – and it wouldn’t – the PA would not resume control in Gaza if Hamas held on to its separate military power. But Hamas wouldn’t agree to just become an umbrella for charities.
Therefore all that remains for the Islamic organization is to continue on with the support of Israel and Qatar – to hold the reins of civil and military control in Gaza alone. Palestinian unity and reconciliation will remain nice declarations. In any case realization of the project of Palestinian statehood, (within the ‘67 or ‘48 borders, it makes no difference) is far from sight.
Netanyahu’s support for Gaza as a separate political entity is nothing new. He’s continuing the policies of previous Israeli governments. Even before Ariel Sharon’s unilateral disengagement from Gaza in 2005, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ehud Barak already sought to separate the Gazans from the other Palestinians.
Ehud Olmert followed the same policy. The Israelis issued statements but in effect thwarted the old arrangement that most of the international community envisaged in funding the Oslo Accords: the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank (including East Jerusalem), which were captured in 1967.
In its place Israeli governments have created a reality of separate Palestinian enclaves, and the Palestinians have contributed by creating their dual self-rule. Hamas and Netanyahu prove that it’s possible to maintain this reality even without terrible bloodshed.
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